Beirut treasure risks ruin

April 26, 1996

Lebanon's bitter civil war stirred up more than hatred. It stirred up the poorly planned streets and buildings of modern Beirut and uncovered an archaeological treasure trove throughout the country.

Archaeologists now face a threat to one of the most important sites in the world not just from renewed fighting and Israeli shelling but from thieves and the developers.

Some archaeological treasures from other parts of the country were sold abroad during the war while others were stored in a mountain castle by one of Lebanon's warlords. Their fate, too, is a subject of bitter controversy.

One visitor drawn to Lebanon by its new-found archaeological wealth was Viscount John Julius Norwich, once a diplomat based at the British Embassy in Beirut, now a historian, chairman of the Venice in Peril fund and co-chairman of the World Monuments Fund.

Lord Norwich was in Lebanon before the Israelis responded to Hezbollah missile attacks to prepare for a lecture this week on the finds at the Royal Geographical Society; while there he lectured on the Byzantine Empire at the American University of Beirut.

It had long been suspected that treasures lay beneath the intense and effectively unregulated building of the 1950s and 1960s. But war and subsequent excavations by Solidere, the company which is rebuilding the city, showed that there was more than anyone had realised. Finds included Byzantine floor mosaics, wonderfully preserved Phoenician city walls, and the skeleton of a three-year-old girl buried in about 1700 bc.

For Lebanon, preserving all this is more than a duty to history. It is also a matter of survival. The government is united on only one thing: the belief that Lebanon's future lies in tourism. The only alternative is to sell water at inflated prices to the country's two powerful but parched neighbours, Israel and Syria; and this would not, in the long term, be wise.

The existence of some of the finest archaeological sites in the world will be a key weapon in the battle to turn Lebanon back into the tourist Mecca it once was.

One of those with most to gain is Myrna Boustani, proprietor of Beirut's most splendid hotel, the Al Bustan. She says: "The people here think you are obscene to make a fuss about an old temple when their children have been killed."

Ramez Maluf of Solidere says: "Not a day passes but there is a lot of discussion about archaeology in the Lebanese press."

Solidere was formed on May 5 1994 with $1 billion to rebuild 1.8 million square metres in the centre of Beirut - the Beirut Central District. It raised the necessary $1 billion on the private market, mostly from Arab sources. Neither the Lebanese government nor other Arab governments had any money for the project, though prime minister Rafic Hariri, who is personally one of the richest men in the Middle East, is the biggest single shareholder.

Solidere pays for the archaeologists. Whole city blocks, earmarked for bulldozing, have been turned into holes in the ground - and then left, while archaeologists get to work. Solidere gives them six months, after which they have to make a case for an extension.

Helga Seeden, professor of eastern archaeology at the AUB, leads one of the biggest digs, an area the size of a football field where the souks used to stand. Her 50 archaeologists, half of them British, are removing and cataloguing everything they find, against the clock. When her six months were up in December she asked for another six months, which was granted. She feels under pressure, she says, because every day she holds up the bulldozers costs Solidere money, and her team is working night and day to catalogue what they find.

Some archaeologists say that inadequate time is allowed, and some British archaeologists have even claimed that the sites are so special that they should be left as they are in the centre of the city, with nothing built on them. But Ramez Maluf says: "The finds are now so great that the idea of a limited archaeological area is no longer relevant."

Most Lebanese historians agree with Lord Norwich, who declared himself satisfied that Solidere is doing everything that can reasonably be expected to preserve the archaeological treasures it uncovers every day.

He points out that Solidere is doing much more than developers in London are willing to do when they uncover treasures like the Rose Theatre.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments